Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Remarks on "When a church must close"

On Saturday, October 19, I served as a panelist for the "Everyone's Architecture" conference, exploring the presence and use of sacred spaces in local communities.  Hosted in downtown Troy, NY, the conference offered a variety of speakers involved with the challenges and opportunities of congregations with facilities that might be outmoded, increasingly too expensive or in dire need of a decision often not easily made.  Some panelists spoke of church conflict over the sale of facilities.  Others spoke of churches becoming community centers where sacred and secular purposes can be explored.

It was a fascinating conference, tinged with some sadness that church buildings are becoming increasingly the subject of much of a congregation's focus, funds and worries.  Preservationists, non-profit and for-profit development experts, architects, clergy and laity pondered together what life (and new life?) is possible among the many churches and diminishing congregations.

I was invited to serve as a panelist exploring the question "When a Church Must Close".  Admittedly, I did not relish having to focus on the scenario we really don't like thinking about, yet the conveners invited the question as an opportunity to reflect on the care of the congregations who are in the midst of the big decisions and the struggle to say "yes" or "no" to the options arising from situations of decline, low funds or overwhelming odds.  

My panel was preceded by another panel exploring the legal struggle of local Roman Catholics trying to save a historic church building.  (Unfortunately, the building was demolished by a developer.)  This prior panel discussion raised a goodly number of questions as we explored how losing a church building has an undeniable need for grieving and an equally important need for such decisions to be held up in prayer and much care of the "flesh and blood" involved in making the decision about the "brick and mortar".

With their request in mind, here's what I said:

The conference focuses rightly on the religious edifice as a communal asset, and indeed, such buildings can be places, hubs even, of community benefit, a sort of hybrid “sacred/secular” multipurpose facility.  I have experience with this work during a seven year pastorate just completed in Bennington, Vermont, at the First Baptist Church in the historic downtown district.  In my new capacity as a denominational associate executive for American Baptist congregations around upstate New York, I am working with congregations in a variety of “life stages”: some enjoying new or renewed ministry, others dealing with years of decline or difficulties brought about by the current economic climate.   So, what do we do when "a church must close"?

In approaching the subject, I want to speak briefly to the importance of legal and due diligence matters.  Engaging the “closure” question must be with a commitment to being thorough, transparent, and timely (how congregations make decisions about the closure of a church must be a shared decision, even as some parts of the process require work by committee or outside assistance, especially in the ecclesiastical, legal and realty side.  It is a dramatic moment that does not need the extra drama of members feeling uninformed or rushed in making big decisions.  As I like to say, informed congregants make informed decisions!)

To understand the process, we have the prevailing legal issues of the state and varying levels of denominational polity implications regarding church property.  Yet, I must add a pastoral word of concern about those for whom the closure or sale of a religious building is not just a matter of parting ways with a building.  For those under a church’s roof and within its walls, you are losing a part of your identity, where lives have been nurtured while in the midst of this brick and mortar.  
Paying close attention to the ways we feel deep down about this structure is not to be ignored or dismissed.  There is a great need for the congregation to experience the discernment process to leave a building or close down its ministry as an opportunity for care, ritual and exploring the ways our given faith tradition speaks of transitions, change, lament and hope.   

A clergy person may find it helpful to spend time with her judicatory official to talk about the “pastoral” implications of what is happening.  You may even find it personally and pastorally helpful to sit down for some intentional conversation with a mental health provider (the stress load of weathering such times is high for lay persons, but honestly, the clergy person bears much as a shepherd leading a flock of divided minds and breaking hearts).  A clergy collegiality group could be a source for stepping away and having the shared wisdom around the table as you think through how the decisions and process of a building’s closure should be cared for via the sermon, pastoral care, worship planning, etc.   You are navigating a major decision as well as something akin to a trauma, as churches making the decision to close a building are very much like the family going through the difficult, emotional and sometimes contentious decisions about selling the family home or the old homestead. To clergy: Don’t feel alone when in the midst of these difficult questions!

If a building must be closed, congregations can find some hope in the midst of the grief when they think about legacy.  A church in St. Louis, MO, decided to sell its building.  The proceeds were donated to my alma mater Central Seminary in Kansas City to endow a faculty position for congregational health.  Another congregation opted to gift its building to another church for a minimal sale with some of the contents remaining to help the “new” congregation continue and other assets given to other congregations or sold, with the proceeds benefiting religious or community charitable purposes.   Being thorough about leaving a building in good condition, addressing the interior and exterior issues at hand (i.e. building contents, grounds maintenance, etc.), is part of the good stewardship of leaving a facility in the next owners’ hands.

A religious building can give up its “life” and yet live on. Finding a way to put the facility into community use as a place for non-profit benefit is especially attractive, as the tending of those in need is consonant with religious values.  However things end, aim to end with ways that speak of “hope”.

1 comment:

  1. Jarrod, Thanks for your very thoughtful response to this painful issue. I found your blog through the EthicsDaily article.

    Blessings, Mary Beth